It was 1987 when John Hancock Insurance signed a $1.5 million, three-year partnership with the Sun Bowl Association to sponsor El Paso’s annual college football game.
That marked the first time that a bowl game had a corporate sponsor – and despite some ridicule that the game had “sold out” to big business, it opened the floodgates to multimillion-dollar bowl sponsorship deals across the nation.
“The Sun Bowl was in trouble financially,” said Bernie Olivas, the association’s executive director who was then a volunteer with the organization. “The Sun Bowl president at the time worked for John Hancock (Insurance) and from that grew a partnership that saved the game.”
At that time, only a dozen bowl games existed. That grew to today’s 40 bowl games – the majority of which have title sponsors, including El Paso’s Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl sponsored by Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.
The number of bowl games could increase, too, as the NCAA recently approved changes that could lead to the creation of up to five more games.
The bowl industry is a big money maker for the Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC and ESPN – where the majority of bowl games are televised – and “by far the biggest reason for the expansion and wealth of the bowl industry,” according to a 2018 USA Today report.
The Sun Bowl has been under contract with CBS Sports since 1968 – the longest continuous partnership between a bowl game and a TV network. The Sun Bowl is the second-longest running sports program on CBS behind the Masters, one of golf’s major championship tournaments.
The Sun Bowl Association’s latest contract with CBS was to run from 2020 to 2025, but has been extended to 2026 after the cancelation of this year’s game due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Olivas said.
Kellogg’s also extended its contract with the Sun Bowl one additional year, he said. The original contract was for two years, 2019-20, with two-year extension to 2022. That’s now been extended to 2023.
“It’s like this year never happened,” Olivas said, adding that Kellogg’s has committed to donate 1 million meals to El Paso food banks and to pay all game-day employees.
Kellogg’s is the Sun Bowl’s sixth corporate sponsor, including the original John Hancock Insurance partnership. Its longest-running sponsor was Hyundai Motor America, whose contract ran from 2010 to 2018.
“Corporate sponsorship gets them naming rights, exposure on local press and national exposure with the game on CBS and much more,” Olivas said. “Then they decide if the return on their investment is worthwhile, and so far we believe it has been.”
While keeping its corporate sponsor, the Sun Bowl Association stands to lose money from other revenue sources due to the coronavirus pandemic and the economic loss its created.
The bowl’s major revenue sources include the corporate sponsorship, ticket sales, TV rights and a car rental tax. A 5% tax is added to every rental car transaction in El Paso, paying out between $3.5 million to $4 million, according to city budget records.
That is expected to decrease significantly this year as travel restrictions translated to much fewer car rentals, Olivas said.
Olivas said he didn’t have a breakdown of the other revenue sources, and a dollar amount from the Kellogg’s sponsorship hasn’t been disclosed.
The Sun Bowl pays out about $4.7 million to its teams, according to the association’s 2019 IRS Form 990 tax filing. Other expanses include $387,000 to outside services; $366,000 in hospitality; $226,000 in participant gifts; and $329,000 to UTEP. Total salaries are about $548,00, records show.
Overall, its revenue is just about even with its annual expenses, the filings show.
The total impact of this year’s cancelation, paired with other pandemic-related financial losses, won’t immediately be known, Olivas said.
For now, the Sun Bowl Association staff is already working on the 2021 game.
“We hope that next year people are going to want to see everything they missed out on this year; that people are hungry for all they missed,” he said. “And that that will translate into a sold-out Sun Bowl.”